Innovation? There's a System for That

Editor’s note: Durham-based Bell and Howell turned to CIMS about four years ago for help shifting its emphasis on mail-processing systems to digital services, becoming one of the first corporations to formally follow the CIMS System for Industrial Innovation. Challenges included deciding what direction to follow, what should be changed, and how innovation factored in these issues. In this article, excerpted from the July/August issue of our Innovation Management Report, Bell and Howell Chief Operating Officer Larry Blue shares highlights from the company’s journey, from 2015’s first implementation of the CIMS process through 2017, when five new projects had grown revenues from zero to 10 percent of the corporate total.

The first stage of the CIMS System for Industrial Innovation is where ideas are identified, quantified and turned into business opportunities; the second stage creates “the compelling case,” which includes actions like customer interviews to validate and verify assumptions about the market value of the candidate idea and then lead into developing a standard business case (and not a plan!)

We followed that process through those two stages but with some “tweaks” dictated by our internal rules and expectations. The first change to what we call “CIMS Lite” was to force quick decisions by limiting to 90 days the time we spent going from ideation through creating the compelling case. We aimed to define the idea in Week 1 or sooner; build the opportunity by Week 4; elaborate and evaluate by Week 10; and develop that compelling business case by Week 12.

Bell and Howell transfers a compelling business case to a larger corporate team (Module 3 of the CIMS System for Industrial Innovation) only after landing the first customer/opportunity.

We don’t want people to “boil the ocean” trying to define and identify a breakthrough idea, which is the purpose of the CIMS process, as opposed to incremental change. We decided that breakthrough ideas should be relatively obvious after you get through the “elaborate and evaluate” stage 2A — that the answers to the questions, the feedback from potential customers, all of that, should drive you to a relatively quick decision. Hence our 90-day target.

Typically, the people defining the idea are those with passion for it– the champions. Because they’ve already thought about it some, describing it in a couple of pages is usually a fairly quick process. We want to flesh out those ideas and the interactions with other parts of the business and the strategy by Week 4. Finally, we do a relatively light business case which is typically 5 to 10 pages looking at all of the critical aspects—competitive positioning, value proposition, and so on.

The second thing is keep the team sizes small, typically less than four people through Stage 2. Smaller teams are less likely to have folks saying “we tried that before and it didn’t work,” or, “we can’t do that because our systems won’t allow us to do it that way,” and so on.  So rather than burden the champion and the team with naysayers, we keep moving these small teams forward through the business case until we get our first customer, which really commits the organization to that business. Only after landing that first customer opportunity do we introduce it to the broader organization (Module 3 in the CIMS System).

We’ve found that’s the best way to provide the “air cover” needed for embryonic businesses to grow to the point where they can withstand the driving rain and high winds that buffet any new business within a large, established organization.

Agile Development

We also apply the agile development practices of sprints and scrums during the discovery process in Stages 1B and 2A. The idea is to tackle a difficult problem first and find solutions to that problem before moving on to something else.

In the product-development engineering world you can do a lot of the easy work first, but if you delay tackling the hard stuff and the unknowns, you could end up having to go back and redo all of the old easy stuff. That’s why we applied those same development concepts to building our business case by attacking the unknowns first and allowing no more than two weeks to resolve them.

That helps us weed out the weaker ideas early on because if you can’t solve the unknowns—if you can’t gather the information or identify the right customer or market segment—then you’re likely to have a difficult time finding a breakthrough innovation.

Larry Blue

Meeting Weekly

Weekly meetings with sponsors, champions and executive management is an important part of our CIMS Lite. I sat in on every one of those for the first wave of our CIMS projects to make sure the team was making progress following the process and sticking to the timetables we had set.

Executive management then made sure that when the team ran ino a problem they lacked the right skill for, we were able to find answers from operations, finance or somewhere else in Bell and Howell.

First Customers

After we came up with a business case and the customer opportunity, we kept the team small and started to involve our business development and sales people to go out with the defined value proposition and find that first customer. Between 2015 and 2017, we launched these five successful projects:

Our first project, which launched in 2015, was a system configuration backup solution for our sortation equipment. The proposed solution saves the setup configurations of the multiple processors in the sorting machine, enabling recovery from a processor or equipment error. Rebooting prior to this solution would have taken hours.This was more incremental than breakthrough but an important first step. We’ve done about $1 million in revenue to date in that project. We subsequently folded it into the larger Bell and Howell organization so it is now one of our service group’s product offerings.

Raptor was a breakthrough labeler product that created a different, more efficient, way of printing labels for packages. Raptor can label different-sized boxes on a conveyor belt three to five times faster than any other labeling system because we invented a way to print on the fly. It’s for fulfillment centers that need different types of labels printed quickly on the boxes. Raptor sales in 2016 were more than $400,000, and the future value of this product improved the value we gained from the sale of our sorting business in 2017.

We had been selling an “enveloper” machine for 10 years with little success, so we used the CIMS process to develop a more effective sales strategy. Although the analysis resulting from the process identified the need for a lower- cost solution, we decided to discontinue the effort after learning some useful lessons.

New market applications for our mail tracking technology was another area that the company had talked about for several years, convinced this technology clearly has applicability beyond mail. We decided that if we truly believed this, we would use the CIMS process to prove it or not. This became our Track and Trace opportunity, which we closed on with Colgate Palmolive in 2016 for $1.3 million. It met FDA requirements compelling drug manufacturers to serialize their products.

Smart Lockers are Internet- and wireless- enabled versions of your old school locker that retailers use in e-commerce strategies to encourage buy online, pick up in store customer transactions. This was a completely green- field opportunity that fit our strategy very well: in order to launch these smart lockers, retailers need the ability to do installations and maintenance and support nationwide. We won our first account in July 2016, and as this article was written we had installed our first 100 of these units at a large retailer.

These “CIMS Lite” businesses accounted for 10 percent of our 2017 revenues and are projected to provide 39 percent of our 2018 revenue. Clearly these new business opportunities have had a significant impact on the product portfolio and the growth opportunities for Bell & Howell.

Keys to Success

Looking back on the lessons we’ve learned from those five projects, I’ve identified three essentials:

Innovation champions who possess both passion and persistence.  Without these, you don’t overcome the inertia of the larger organization and the project will die. We try to involve people who have some experience with product management, marketing, finance, or manufacturing, but first and foremost are passionate.

“Air cover” and patience from the executive sponsor. Breakthrough ideas stress an organization that already has business goals and values. So if you have a breakthrough idea like our Smart Lockers, for example, it’s competing for resources with large established organizations that already have budgets and revenue targets. You have to protect that business to move it beyond its embryonic state.

Finally, you need an internal process owner and evangelist as your innovation leader. We had that in former Chief Technology Officer Brian Bowers. He was the muse, advisor and subject matter expert who the innovation champion could go to for guidance, learning and assistance in working through the rigorous steps of the process.

Because the process requires commitment to getting it done, you need people with passion being directed by people who understand the process so the passionate people don’t get bogged down in bureaucracy but also don’t skip steps.

Going Forward

As we began to drive a second wave of new ideas by re-launching CIMS Lite in 2018, we recognized that we could do better at building the opportunity (Stage 1B). We also want to do ensure our market analysis is thorough in order to identify more potential markets for our new ideas. We also need to communicate our successes better internally in order to stimulate more new ideas. And then we need to assign and train new process owners.-Larry Blue


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